Horses have been used for all kinds of therapy, and stories extolling the benefits abound. To date, however, there is scant scientific information to prove that equine assisted therapy really works.
The Man O’ War Project is hoping to change that for one type of horse therapy — the kind that seeks to help veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only systematic research will provide evidence that could convince the federal government to fund such equine-assisted PTSD programs, said Man O’ War Project President Anne Poulson, who was with the project’s chairman, James MacGuire, at Saratoga Race Course Saturday in advance of the inaugural Equestricon horse racing conference beginning Sunday evening. And getting the federal Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs behind such programs is what would allow them to operate nationally.
If proven effective, Poulson said, it would “give those horses with good, suitable temperaments a noble second career.”
The fate of most retired racehorses is uncertain. Some are sent to stud farms, some to rescue operations and others to be slaughtered and sold as meat to other countries.
The Man O’ War project is the brainchild of Earle Mack, a veteran, former ambassador to Finland and former chair of the New York State Racing Commission, who has advocated for new training and homes for thoroughbreds after their racing careers have ended. With an initial $1.2 million boost from the Earle I. Mack Foundation, the Man O’ War Project is funding the first federally approved clinical study of equine-assisted PTSD therapy at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
It was Mack who approached researchers in the medical school’s Department of Psychiatry with the idea, said Prudence Fisher, an associate professor of clinical psychiatric social work. Researchers there knew nothing about equine therapy, and had to start from scratch to determine how to evaluate the programs.
Among the early tasks was to determine how to set up a program that they could test, Fisher said. Horse therapy is not often provided in a systematic way, and is even offered in some settings as a way to improve well-being, rather than result in actual therapeutic benefits.
The researchers, however, wanted to understand whether it truly offered improvements to the mental health of veterans with PTSD. So they established some rules. There would be no riding but only what is called “ground work,” keeping the horse and veterans more equal to each other. They developed an eight-week treatment regimen in which the veterans gradually build on their trust with the horses.
In the process of researching equine therapy, Fisher was surprised to learn a few things about horses that may make them particularly good for working with PTSD sufferers. Like people who carry psychological scars of war, horses are hypervigilant — overly aware of their surroundings and easy to startle.
The veterans who have been through the program so far have fared well, Fisher said. In test groups established to develop the treatment, eight veterans’ PTSD symptoms decreased between 26 percent and 74 percent.
Fisher and Yuval Neria, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia, will speak about the study at a panel at Equestricon on Monday at the Saratoga Springs City Center.
MacGuire said the group will need another $500,000 to $600,000 to finish the first research stage.